Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Derek Walcott / 'The Oxford poetry job would have been too much work'

Derek Walcott
Photograph by Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Derek Walcott: 'The Oxford poetry job would have been too much work'

As his reworking of Robinson Crusoe goes on stage, Derek Walcott talks about Caribbean culture, his spat with VS Naipaul - and why he didn't want the poetry job anyway

Stephen Moss
Thursday 3 May 2012 10.10 BST

he battle to become Oxford professor of poetry in 2009 was worthy of a mock-heroic poem by Alexander Pope. First, the frontrunner Derek Walcott pulled out following a smear campaign that disinterred allegations of sexual harassment dating back to the 1980s and 90s. Then the eventual victor, Ruth Padel, had to resign after less than a fortnight, when she was implicated in the smear. It was an ugly business, but it did get poetry – that most marginalised of literary forms – on to the front pages for a while.

There was also a less well-publicised by-product. When Walcott withdrew, Essex University decided to reintroduce its own professorship of poetry, a post once grand enough for Robert Lowell, and offer it to Walcott. So instead of delivering dense lectures among dreaming spires, he spends a fortnight each year teaching and giving readings amid brutalist tower blocks – and excavating a less well-known part of his oeuvre, his plays.
This week, at the university's Lakeside theatre, he is directing Pantomime, his 1978 comic two-hander. This explores the tensions of post-colonial Tobago through the character of washed-up English actor Harry Trewe, who has bought a clapped-out guesthouse on the island, and galvanic local Jackson Phillip; having abandoned his career as a calypso singer, Jackson is now a waiter at the guesthouse. Harry wants to put on a pantomime, based on Robinson Crusoe, and is keen for Jackson to take part. The story of Crusoe – the archetypal imperialist, a plantation owner who is shipwrecked while bringing slaves from Africa – is fertile ground for an examination of race and identity in the Caribbean after the tide of empire had gone out. Who should play Crusoe and who Friday? Who is really in charge on the island now?
At the Lakeside, Walcott sits in the front row, wearing jeans, striped braces and a bright red baseball cap, watching rehearsals. It is unlikely attire for a Nobel laureate, but then he is not your average literary grandee. Revering English literature since his boyhood in Saint Lucia, he takes his work seriously, himself less so. "What the fuck is wrong with me?" he says, as he forgets the sequence of events in the play. As a director, he prefers to watch and listen, rather than lay down the law. "There's something terrific happening here," he says at one point, though it's for the actors to discover what.
We talk during a break. Walcott is accommodating, yet you are never quite at ease. At 82, a little deaf and forgetful, he has no time for foolishness. He thinks my first question – can a play written 30 years ago still say something about the coloniser and colonised? – foolish. "That's a hell of a thing to ask me," he says, his voice rising with a lovely, growly West Indian lilt. "I would imagine that a play might last. If it's any good, it lasts."
He wrote Pantomime in a matter of days, the words tumbling out so fast he dictated rather than wrote much of the dialogue. "I was playing the two roles myself," he says. His two grandfathers were white, his grandmothers black, so he can identify with both sides. But he warns against seeing Pantomime only in political terms. "The surface of the play looks like a cliche: a situation between a black guy and a white guy. But what I wanted to talk about more was the relationship between two artists from different cultures – basically the same kind of person, one working in music hall, the other in calypso. There's an affinity between them."
He doesn't, however, entirely disclaim the politics. "In terms of racial relationships in the Caribbean, you still have a tourist economy in which people are asked to behave in a certain way. It's become very emphatic now, the idea of service. But you have to be careful it doesn't turn into slavery: the insistence that you must smile and serve for the sake of the island. Advertisements that have everybody grinning and insisting you have to make people happy, that's our job in life. That's dangerous. It's even worse that it's black people – the tourist board, the government – doing it to themselves."
Walcott has written more than 20 plays. Why are they so little known? "I am not defined as a black writer in the Caribbean," he says, "but as soon as I go to America or the UK, my place becomes black theatre. It's a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don't wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I'm a Caribbean writer." The essence of the Caribbean, he says, is multiracialism. "On my street, it could be an Indian, a Chinese, a Lebanese, all living together. Whether happily or not doesn't matter."

Walcott says he should not be seen as a pioneer of Caribbean art: he built on the achievements of writers who preceded him. Many left to make their careers elsewhere, but Walcott chose to stay. "I made a vow that I wouldn't be tempted by what could happen to me if I went to Europe. I thought, 'You could be absorbed in it – it's so seductive, you might lose your own search for identity.' Then, when I did finally go to Europe, I was able to resist it because I had established my own identity." Did that commitment to the Caribbean delay acceptance of him? "English reviewing was very patronising," he says. "There were categories for Commonwealth writing. What is a Commonwealth writer? Is he less than somebody who's in the capital? I was infuriated by the semi-contempt in which Commonwealth writing was held."
Despite being patronised, Walcott showed remarkable confidence, self-publishing his first book of poems at 19. "I knew exactly where I was and what I was doing," he says. "My father [who died when Walcott was one] used to write. My mother taught Shakespeare and used to act. So I had that atmosphere at home. I knew very early what I wanted to do and I considered myself lucky to know that's what I wanted, even in a place like Saint Lucia where there was no publishing house and no theatre." That throwaway line emphasises the extent of his achievement, won by talent and a ferocious work ethic.
In the 1960s and 70s, Walcott was not just patronised by much of the white establishment, but attacked by some black critics for having sold out because he used traditional literary forms. "I went through a lot of crap. People criticising you for being Afro-Saxon, but the point was that they were criticising me in English. Why were they doing it in English? Why weren't they doing it in whatever language they wanted to invent?"
He says his relationship with English literature and culture is that of a detached admirer. "When I come to England, I don't claim England, I don't own it. I feel a great kinship because of the literature and the landscape. I have great affection for Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin, but there's still this distance: looking on at what I'm admiring, separate from what I am. And that's OK. That makes for drama of a kind, and a more careful introspection about what you're liking and why."

Walcott has had a long-running feud with his fellow Nobel laureate VS Naipaul, who left his native Trinidad and has been critical of the poverty of indigenous culture. Walcott made a fierce public attack on Naipaul in 2008, in a poem called The Mongoose: "I have been bitten, I must avoid infection/ Or else I will be as dead as Naipaul's fiction." Walcott claims Naipaul has misrepresented Trinidadian culture. "It's very upsetting," he says, "because people were defenceless. He could call them whatever he wanted, in very elegant English. He should not have used his talent to abuse his own people. I wanted to help him recognise that."
Walcott's breakthrough book was Omeros, his 1990 reworking of The Odyssey set in Saint Lucia. "The girl who typed it was saying, 'This is going to win the Nobel prize.'" She was right, but he insists he never thought in such terms. "It's startling to me when somebody says, 'Your form is classical.' I know what's inside me. I know what I enjoy. It's nothing to do with what I'm described as being – it's a contradiction of that almost. My delight in things is definitely Caribbean. It has to do with landscape and food. The fact that my language may have a metrical direction is because that's the shape of the language. I didn't make that shape."
And the Oxford professorship? How badly burned did he feel? "I don't think ultimately I wanted the job," he says. "It would have been too much work. I'm not a good scholar. Like [Walt] Whitman, I contradict myself very quickly, and you can't have an academic who does that." Why did he withdraw from the election? "I felt if I was disgracing people, I'd better get out of there." In any case, he says, "being in the Caribbean and being professor of poetry at Oxford was a contradiction." Which is why, in the end, the only way was Essex.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott dead, aged 87

 Derek Walcott receiving the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature from King Carl Gustav of Sweden.
Photograph: taken from picture library
Nobel laureate, poet and playwright Derek Walcott dead, aged 87
Walcott, who died in Saint Lucia, was famous for his monumental body of work that wove in Caribbean history, particularly his epic Omeros

Richard Lea
Friday 17 March 2017 14.14 GMT

The poet and playwright Derek Walcott, who moulded the language and forms of the western canon to his own purposes for more than half a century, has died aged 87.
His monumental poetry, such as his 1990 epic Omeros, a Caribbean reimagining of The Odyssey, secured him an international reputation which gained him the Nobel prize in 1992. Walcott also had an accomplished theatrical career, being the writer and director of more than 80 plays that often explored the problems of Caribbean identity against the backdrop of racial and political strife.
The former poet laureate Andrew Motion paid tribute to “a wise and generous and brilliant man”.
“As a member of the great Nobel-winning poetic generation that included Brodsky and Heaney, he did as much or more than anyone to win the global respect for Caribbean writing that it deserves and now enjoys,” Motion said. “The rich sensualities of his writing are deeply evocative and also definitive, and its extraordinary historical and literary reach – in his long Homeric poem Omeros especially – gives everything in the present of his work the largest possible resonance. He will be remembered as a laureate of his particular world, who was also a laureate of the world in general.”
For the Jamaican poet Kei Miller, Walcott’s most important contribution was perhaps his assertion of his Caribbean identity and his confidence that this identity was enough to encompass all of human experience.
“Walcott always insisted that he was a Caribbean writer,” Miller said, “and that this wasn’t a limit, that it didn’t make his work parochial. I always say I want to write a large literature from a small place, and it is Walcott who embodies that attitude more than anyone else.” While the colonial experience was terrible, he continued, Walcott argued that it gave him “the language that was his kingdom. His poetry was supremely ambitious. He was taking on Shakespeare, he was taking on Chaucer, he was taking on Dante – all of these were his forefathers and he thought of himself as equal to them. This is what great writing was and this is what he wanted to produce … he wanted to stand alongside them.”

Critic and biographer Hermione Lee said Walcott will be remembered as “a great epic writer of the world, who turned his local place into the scene of classical epic rewritten, most memorably of all in Omeros, as a craftsman and painter in words of the utmost colour, tenderness, vividness and energy, and as a writer of the most urgent beat and rhythm”.
“Like his friends, Brodsky and Heaney, his voice will resound through history,” Lee said. “It’s a great loss to language.”
According to Matthew Hollis, poetry editor at Faber, Walcott has been “both a lighthouse and an anchor” over the four decades the imprint has published his work: “A light to illuminate the terrain by which we have marked our lives – love, truth, loss, happiness, moral engagement; an anchor, to measure and affirm our convictions and our commitments.”
“Like the classics to which he was constantly drawn,” Hollis said, “he could bring forth truth from such minute detail, and remind us, vividly and unforgettably, why the examined life truly mattered.”
Born on Saint Lucia in 1930, Walcott’s ancestry wove together the major strands of Caribbean history, an inheritance he described famously in a poem from 1980’s The Star-Apple Kingdom as having “Dutch, nigger, and English in me, / and either I’m nobody, or I’m a / nation”. Both of his grandmothers were said to have been descended from slaves, but his father, who died when Walcott was only a year old, was a painter, and his mother the headmistress of a methodist school - enough to ensure that Walcott received what he called in the same poem a “sound colonial education”. He published his first collection of poems – funded by his mother – at the age of 19. A year later, in 1950, he staged his first play and went to study English literature, French and Latin at the newly established University College of the West Indies in Jamaica.

After graduating in 1953 he moved to Trinidad, an island recently vacated by VS Naipaul, a contemporary of Walcott’s whose career advanced in eerie synchronicity – from early dreams of a life in literature to Nobel success. Naipaul was first to find a London publisher, Walcott first to find favour with the Swedish Academy - but their contrasting approach to the legacy of empire soured their early friendship, igniting a feud which reached its apogee when Walcott read out an attack in verse at the 2008 Calabash festival in Jamaica: “I have been bitten, I must avoid infection / Or else I’ll be as dead as Naipaul’s fiction.”
Walcott continued his project to make the western canon his own, summoning up the spirits of Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Yeats and Eliot in collections that explored his position “between the Greek and African pantheon”. His decision to write mostly in standard English brought attacks from the Black Power movement in the 1970s, which Walcott answered in the voice of a mulatto sea-dog in The Star-Apple Kingdom: “I have no nation now but the imagination./ After the white man, the niggers didn’t want me/ when the power swing to their side./ The first chain my hands and apologize, ‘History’ / the next said I wasn’t black enough for their pride.” While Omeros tackled the ghost of Homer head on, relocating Achilles, Helen and Philoctetes among the island fishermen of the West Indies.

A 1981 MacArthur “genius” grant cemented Walcott’s links with the US, first forged during a Rockefeller fellowship begun in 1957. Teaching positions at Boston, Columbia, Rutgers and Yale followed, but his teaching style, which he described as “deliberately personal and intense”, got him into trouble. Two female students at two universities accused him of interfering with their academic achievements after they rejected his advances. One case was settled out of court, but this was said to have counted against him when he was passed over for the post of poet laureate in 1999. It was also the focus of an anonymous smear campaign which forced him to withdraw his candidacy for the post of Oxford professor of poetry in the notorious 2009 election campaign for the post, and which forced the resignation of his rival Ruth Padel only nine days into her term, after it emerged that she had sent details of a book discussing both cases to a journalist at the Evening Standard. Walcott won the TS Eliot prize in 2011 two years later, with his collection White Egrets.

In 2012, he told the Guardian that he felt that he was still defined as a black writer in the US and the UK. “It’s a little ridiculous. The division of black theatre and white theatre still goes on, and I don’t wish to be a part of any one of those definitions. I’m a Caribbean writer.”

Monday, March 13, 2017

Robert Lowell at 100 / Why his poetry has never been more relevant

Robert Lowell by James Loucks

Robert Lowell at 100: why his poetry has never been more relevant

Lowell’s confessional work of the 1960s marked a sea change in American letters – then he fell out of favour. But on the eve of his centenary, his work offers an urgent political message in a time of Trump

Max Liu
Wednesday 1 March 2017 11.23 GMT

was born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House,” wrote the poet Robert Lowell, “and under Pisces, the Fish, on the first of March, 1917.” With his aristocratic background – all the inherited furniture and ancestral portraits surrounding him as a child, as he recalled in the memoir 91 Revere Street – perhaps it’s no surprise, reading Lowell 100 years after his birth, that he was often preoccupied with the passing of time. “Thirty-one / Nothing done,” he writes in 1948. A decade later: “These are the tranquillized Fifties, / and I am forty.” In the elegiac Grandparents, he stands over his late grandfather’s billiards table and contemplates his own “life-lease”.

Lowell is best known for his fourth collection, Life Studies (1959). He abandoned the tight metrical forms of his earlier work for free verse, helping him articulate his experiences and the turbulence of postwar America. Radiant and unsettling, Lowell examines his parents’ unhappy marriage, his responses to their deaths and his bouts of manic depression, in a pioneering style of confessional writing (“the C-word,” as Michael Hofmann put it). His psychological insights are as sharp as the “locked razor” of Waking in the Blue; in the magnificent Skunk Hour, his clarity pierces the night: “My mind’s not right.”

Listen to Robert Lowell read Skunk Hour

In an age when we narrate our lives online, it is difficult to appreciate how revolutionary Lowell’s candour seemed to his contemporaries. Not that the poems are unmediated or spontaneous: he was a rigorous rewriter, who altered facts where it suited him and whose finished poems rarely contained a line of his first drafts. But Life Studies opened up new possibilities for poetic subject matter and made Lowell, along with his friends John Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, one of the most influential poets of the mid-20th century. Sylvia Plath, who was taught by Lowell at Boston University, hailed his “intense breakthrough into very serious, very personal, emotional experience which … has been partly taboo”.

Lowell continued to make art from life. The title poem of his collection For the Union Dead (1964) combines American social change with personal loss. In 1973, he controversially deployed letters from his second wife, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, in The Dolphin. Fellow poet Bishop considered this move crass and unethical, telling him: “Art just isn’t worth that much.”

Listen to Lowell read For the Union Dead

Today, Bishop’s popularity is soaring while Lowell’s has waned. Seamus Heaney once attributed this to Lowell’s background and the “orchestral crash” of his verse: “Lowell was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, a Eurocentric, egotistical sublime, writing as if he intended to be heard in a high wind.” It’s not always easy to feel sympathy for an artist with a trust fund and whose family have their own graveyard. But Lowell knew he was privileged, and the beauty and specificity with which he describes his world creates space for the reader to reflect on their own experience. His writing may even have subtle political messages for our times; the poet Claudia Rankine, who cites Life Studies as an influence on her groundbreaking 2015 work Citizen: An American Lyric, sees in Lowell’s book “a struggle with … the construction of whiteness”.

Grand, intimate, eccentric, funny, disturbing – the voice of Lowell, who died in 1977, is distinctly American. Perhaps as you’d expect of somebody who had an ancestor on the Mayflower and was a friend of Jackie Kennedy. Nevertheless, Lowell was consistently at odds with the US government, serving jail time as a conscientious objector during the second world war, rejecting an invitation to the White House in 1965 to protest Lyndon Johnson’s foreign policy, speaking at the March on the Pentagon in 1967.
This January, while watching Donald Trump’s inauguration I switched off the TV and reached for Lowell’s sonnet Inauguration Day: January 1953, which distils an atmosphere of disaffection in New York as a new era of old mistakes begins in Washington under President Eisenhower: “The Republic summons Ike / the mausoleum in her heart.” In his centenary year, it seems Lowell still speaks to us – with renewed urgency.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My hero / Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban

Robert Lowell

My hero 

Robert Lowell by Jonathan Raban

'In his greatest poems he brilliantly fused the most intimate details of his own life with the public turmoil of his century'

was his fishing friend. In 1971, when Lowell was 54 and I was 28, he sent me a generous postcard after I'd talked on Radio 3 about Notebook, his epic sonnet sequence. We met for lunch at a crappy French restaurant on Old Brompton Road, near the house where he lived with Caroline Blackwood. We began with talk of poetry, then moved to fishing and the day-ticket trout streams in Kent and Hampshire where I was a frequent visitor. Four hours later we left the restaurant, having made a fishing date for the weekend.

From then until his sudden death in 1977, I was an immensely lucky recipient of Lowell's gift for friendship. I see him now, his grizzled hair, home-cut in the wild style of the later Beethoven; eyes enlarged by thick, black-framed glasses; cigarette never far from his lips; that Bostonian voice, tinged with the vowel-stretching accent of the old South. He was the most companionable man I've ever met, the most avid in his inexhaustible appetite for history, literature, politics, people, gossip, and one of the most funny. Conversation was for him a continuous experiment, in which he'd playfully draft phrases, similes and metaphors to fit the experience in hand, as if everything that happened might be a potential poem in the making. In his greatest poems, such as "Waking Early Sunday Morning", he brilliantly fused the most intimate details of his own life with the public turmoil of his century.
He was an afflicted hero. One month in every 12, he'd be cruelly humbled by a bout of mania, an event harrowing to witness as Lowell's furies took possession of him. I remember a visit to the hospital, the day after the people in white coats had come for him. Drugged, gentle, wanly smiling, Lowell introduced me to his fellow patients: "You see, I'm a freshman here." Wherever he was, whether sectioned in the madhouse, or home, sprawled on his red-velvet chaise longue, amid a blizzard of books, ash and paper, he was one of life's great learners, a modest student of the world he wrote about with such exhilarating power.

Friday, March 3, 2017

My hero / Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford

Edwin Morgan

My hero: Edwin Morgan by Robert Crawford

'He radiated energy, yet was stringent, demanding. He eluded definition'

Robert Crawford
Saturday 21 August 2010 00.06 BST

n the middle of the week, around the time Edwin Morgan died in Glasgow, Kathleen Jamie, David Kinloch and I were in Edinburgh, acknowledging our debts to him. We were at the book festival listening to AB Jackson, winner of this year's Edwin Morgan International Poetry prize. Jackson spoke of how he lived two minutes from the care home where Eddie had a room, and how he often thought of him. Another prizewinner, Susan Grindley from the south of England, began her reading with a poem inspired by one of Morgan's. Almost no contemporary poet has been so loved.

In 1978 he was my tutor at Glasgow University – passionate about Emily Brontë and Milton's Areopagitica, that great defence of freedom of speech ("I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue"). Morgan, who had not yet come out as a gay man, must have had his share of fugitive experiences, and was fascinated by all kinds of speaking out. He wrote poems so weird and wonderful that some killjoys denied they were poetry. One of his best, "The Loch Ness Monster's Song", ends simply "blp". In 1978 this poet-professor had on his wall a poster of the earth seen from space, and had recently published a book called From Glasgow to Saturn. He radiated energy, yet was also stringent, demanding as a tutor and as a sonneteer. He eluded definition.
At the end of that course Morgan, who knew I wrote verse, gave me Hugh MacDiarmid's Collected Poems – published in New York but not available in Britain. It helped open my eyes to Scottish culture. So did Morgan's own poetry and prose. Like MacDiarmid, Morgan was a republican Scottish nationalist, but far more playful. He was to later 20th-century Scottish poetry what MacDiarmid had been half a century earlier: the central energising force, utterly international in vision, confident in what he called "the resources of Scotland" – a consummate encourager of younger poets, his name still identified with generosity even as he died.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Edwin Morgan / In Glasgow

Edwin Morgan

In Glasgow
By Edwin Morgan

In my smoochy corner
take me on a cloud
I'll wrap you round
and lay you down
in smoky tinfoil
rings and records
sheets of whisky
and the moon all right
old pal all right
the moon all night
Mercy for the rainy
tyres and the violet
thunder that bring you
shambling and shy
from chains of Easterhouse
plains of lights
make your delight
in my nest my spell
my arms and my shell
my barn my bell
I've combed your hair
and washed your feet
and made you turn
like a dark eel
in my white bed
till morning lights
a silent cigarette
throw on your shirt
I lie staring yet
forget forget

Friday, February 24, 2017

Edwin Morgan / One Cigarette

One Cigarette 

No smoke without you, my fire.
After you left,
your cigarette glowed on in my ashtray
and sent up a long thread of such quiet grey
I smiled to wonder who would believe its signal
of so much love. One cigarette
in the non-smoker's tray.
As the last spire
trembles up, a sudden draught
blows it winding into my face.
Is it smell, is it taste?
You are here again, and I am drunk on your tobacco lips.
Out with the light.
Let the smoke lie back in the dark.
Till I hear the very ash
sigh down among the flowers of brass
I'll breathe, and long past midnight, your last kiss.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Frieda Hughes / ‘I felt my parents were stolen’

Frieda Hughes
Photograph by Murdo Macleod for the Guardian

Frieda Hughes: ‘I felt my parents were stolen’

‘When I read what people had written about my mother it was quite a shock to find she wasn’t angelic because that was how my father had presented her.’

Frieda Hughes is a painter and poet. She is also the daughter of two giants of the literary world, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and didn’t read her parents’ poetry until her mid-30s

Donna Ferguson
Saturday 28 May 2016 06.30 BST

rieda Hughes is thumbing through her first book of poetry, trying to find the poem she wrote about the poems her father, Ted Hughes, wrote about her mother, Sylvia Plath. “It’s called Birds. It describes the poet as a penguin, nursing the egg his wife has left him, and the skuas that kill and feed on baby penguins. I wrote it about my father and Birthday Letters [the collection of poems Hughes wrote in response to Plath’s suicide]. But when my father read it, he said he thought it was a poem about me. I look at it now and think he’s right.”

Her voice, as she reads the poem aloud, is deep and low; eerily resonant of the voice of her mother, who was recorded reading her Ariel poems a few months before her death. She gassed herself in an oven in the middle of the night, leaving out bread and milk as breakfast for the sleeping Frieda and her one-year-old brother.
Frieda was almost three at the time. She is 56 now and we are sitting by the fire in the lounge of her old Welsh farmhouse, eating delicious homemade banana cake and drinking tea. Every inch of every wall is covered with her dramatic, large oil paintings of birds and abstract shapes.
Her father loved her paintings, she says. He also liked her poetry and encouraged her to write, although she didn’t allow him to read any of her poems until she was 34. By then, she had been secretly writing poetry for a decade, filing it away in a shoebox. “I came to him with a stack of my poetry that was several inches high and asked him to put them into three piles: good, bad and indifferent. And he did – he put several into each category. He was quite good at being impartial and, with poetry, he was supremely impartial.
“He didn’t tell me what I should change. He said: ‘These I don’t think warrant anything, these ones could be worked on and these ones I really like as they are.’ But, inevitably, even the ones he really liked as they were, I did loads of work on anyway.”

 Frieda with her father, Ted, and brother Nicolas in Connemara, 1966.
Photograph: Jane Bown

She hid her poetry from her father and everyone else in her life out of a desire to develop her own voice. “I had a fear of similarity. I wanted to be judged on my own merits.”
Instead, she wrote children’s books and had six published. Then, at 34, she was diagnosed with chronic fatigue, and all she wanted to do with her few waking hours was to paint huge oil paintings and write poetry. The experience changed how she felt about following in her parents’ footsteps.
“We only have one life. If we live an awful lot of it not doing something that would make us very happy, hurts no one and might actually be worth something in the general scheme of things, it’s pretty sad if we don’t do it, just because we might get our heads kicked in.”
She has never sat down to write a poem and thought, my parents were so good at this. “If that thought even crossed my mind, it would paralyse me.”
She didn’t even want to read any of her parents’ poetry until she was in her mid-30s and had finished writing her first collection; she had sought and received special dispensation to avoid studying their work at school. “I always felt their poetry would contaminate me in some way. By contaminate, I mean influence my poetry. I absolutely did not want to copy them. Also, my parents were Mum and Dad. Why would I want to turn them into something other that I studied from a distance? If I didn’t read their poetry, they would always be Mum and Dad, not these great literary luminaries.”
Her father used to disappear to write: “He worked a lot. He had a very powerful work ethic – he was very disciplined.”

But she also remembers him cooking her scrambled eggs, taking her to the beach and going for walks across Dartmoor. “I had a lot of freedom as a child – I used to run a bit wild. I was happiest roaming free in the sun, in a field, with an animal of some kind.”
This doesn’t surprise me. After my arrival, she patiently fed minced up chunks of a dead chick to Sammy, her fluffy Eurasian eagle owlet, using chopsticks. She owns nine owls – along with two dogs, two rabbits, two chickens, six chinchillas, nine ferrets and a snake.

When Hughes gave into curiosity and read their poetry, did it reveal anything about her parents she didn’t already know? “No, but when I read what other people had written about my mother, it was quite a shock to find that she wasn’t angelic because that was how my father had presented her. He never said a bad thing about my mother, ever.”
She is full of admiration for her mother’s work, especially Ariel, and equally in awe of her father’s poetry. Her favourite poem of his is Full Moon and Little Frieda. Her mother also wrote about her in Morning Song. “I like their poems about me, basically,” she says, and laughs.
She has written several moving poems about her parents in Alternative Values, her latest collection of paintings and poetry. This, she says, is her way of reclaiming her parents’ very public relationship: “When I was younger, I used to feel my parents had been a bit stolen, by being reinvented by other people … My parents are my life. Not yours, not someone else’s, they are mine. If I want to write about them, it’s my prerogative.”
Many of the poems in Alternative Values explore themes of death and loss, and some of the strongest and most powerful touch on the period shortly before and after her mother’s death. “It’s me talking with my younger self who couldn’t talk to people then. It’s giving the child that I was a voice that I never allowed myself to have. I couldn’t have done that in my first book of poems or even the second, partly because my father was still alive. Daddy wouldn’t have minded but … I wasn’t ready. And had I thought more deeply about being more personal then, that is where possibly the weight of the success of my parents would have been a consideration. It would have been like: oh, they’re my parents and here I am being deeply personal about all the newsy stuff.”
Yet writing a poem about something painful, she has discovered, can be her way of digesting it. “One of the things I’ve learned is, if we try and put sadness off, it just waits. And in my experience, running away from sadness doesn’t do anybody any good.”
If anyone has reason to understand this, it is Hughes. Ten years after her father died, her brother Nicholas hanged himself. She never wanted to have children, she says, so she didn’t, although she has married and divorced three times. Yet she comes across as an overwhelmingly positive person who sees the losses she has suffered as a way of reminding herself she is still alive and had better do something worthwhile with her life. “I have a real consciousness that I will never get today back. Today is going to be as good or as bad as I make it.”
At the same time, she says, you can’t ignore the fact that we’re all going to die. “So always be prepared. Always give the one last kiss. Always tell somebody you love them. Always, always.”